Voices of Drought.

“Personally,” says Erin Axelrod, “I am peeing outside every chance I get. I’m not flushing my toilet. Anytime I take a bath, I keep the water in the bath and use a bucket to pull water out to flush.”

She continues her list. “I keep a pot in my kitchen sink, I don’t let any water go down the drain, and I use that to water the plants. I try to do one-pot cooking, and if I steam broccoli, for example, I keep the water and use it to make my rice.”

Facing the drought might be easier for Axelrod than for the rest of us, given her work with the burgeoning permaculture industry and her long alliance with Daily Acts, the Petaluma-based organization devoted to conserving all of our resources. But the drought, of course, reaches further than home and hearth.

“I’ve been really interested to learn how the drought is affecting local farmers and how they’ll be changing their practices,” Axelrod says. “I’ve seen that more people are moving in to dry farming.”

Adam Davidoff of West County’s New Family Farm is already dry farming, mostly tomatoes and potatoes. “There are different interpretations as to what ‘dry farming’ means,” he says. “There’s no textbook definition. The definition as I understand it is to not water the crops, but to use practices that encourage the plant to live and thrive in conditions without irrigation.”

Unfortunately, Davidoff—like most farmers—has already ordered thousands of dollars’ worth of seeds for spring planting, a decision he had to make before it became clear that we were in the driest year since California began keeping records in the 1860s.

Krista Lindley, the watershed coordinator of the Gold Ridge Resource Conservation District, helps farmers like Davidoff prepare for drought year-round. “Rather than drawing water out of the creek or shallow wells in the summer,” she says, “we work with farmers to collect their water in the winter and store it, so that there’s less competition between the fish and the farmer, so it’s a win-win for everybody. There’s a benefit to the farmer in terms of water security. If there’s not water in the creek in the summer, there’s no benefit for them anyhow.”

Lindley’s organization is also being very proactive in helping farmers with rain catchment systems, helping to establish them on places like Redwood Hill Farm, a goat dairy, and Bloomfield Farms, where the long barns prove to be excellent sluices for rainwater. “These farms feed people,” she says. “There’s a real tangible benefit to their water security.”

But establishing rain catchment systems can be expensive and therefore not a terrific solution for ordinary householders. Santa Rosa-based master landscaper Robert Kourik has found that gray water, if used cautiously, makes a better fit economically.

Kourik says that drip irrigation is the best solution in trying to keep plants alive during a drought. His specialty is bare root trees, and with bare root season upon us, even he’s not certain it makes sense to plant this year. But if you must, he says, even two minutes a day of drip irrigation should keep the tree alive until next winter. Placement is the important point. “You can cut your usage back by 70 percent if you put the water at the right place, not near the trunk, and use a lot of mulch,” Kourik says. He also suggests building moats around your plants to keep what little water they receive from spreading away from where you need it.

Gold Ridge Resource Conservation District scientist John Green is nearly as concerned what happens when we do get rain as when we don’t. “Storm water is a big issue,” he says, “because you have a lot of water that’s running off, and those have big impacts ecologically on the physical habitat of the streams. By paving over or changing the land uses on our landscape, we’re causing erosion and less of that water is going into the ground.”

“Changing land use” could be code for “planting vineyards,” and the winery industry is keenly aware of that. Corey Beck, general manager and director of winemaking for Francis Ford Coppola Winery and its sister property, Rubicon Estate, reports that these wineries have taken a proactive stance on water use reduction, practicing “fish-friendly” farming and funneling all waste water into what he terms “a very large reactor” that cleans it before using it to irrigate. “It’s about being creative and looking for ways to utilize and eliminate waste,” he says.

A year-round landscaper with a thriving business when the 1976 drought parched California, Robert Kourik actually had to change professions for a while. His services were no longer in demand. He’s definitely wary of the coming year and our growing—or shrinking—prospects.

“Drip irrigation doesn’t use that much water,” he says thoughtfully. “But it’s still water.”

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